Psalm 42: an exile in despair
BOOK II Psalm 42-72 Psalm 42 For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah. (1) As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. (2) My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (3) My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, "Where is your God?" (4) These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. (5) Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (6) My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon- from Mount Mizar. (7) Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. (8) By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me- a prayer to the God of my life. (9) I say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?" (10) My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, "Where is your God?" (11) Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Maskil or Maschil is probably a musical term, although Bible scholars are not exactly sure. Psalm 42 may be a little song of instruction, using music to aid in memorization or to add to the joy of praising the Lord.
Psalm 42 begins “Book Two” of the Psalter, Psalms 42-72. There are some differences between the first and second books, most notably is that while David authored more than half of them, we will see some other authors as well. Psalm 42 is penned by the “sons of Korah.”
The sons of Korah were Levites in charge of worship in the tabernacle and later, the temple. Korah himself was part of a rebellion against Moses in the wilderness that cost him his life. God dealt with his rebellion in Numbers 16, have a look at that story. Number 26:11 says that despite Korah’s rebellion and doom, “the line of Korah, however, did not die out.”
Perhaps the sons of Korah had a different reason than some to sing and praise the Lord. They had been literally saved from going down into the pit with their fathers and others who had disobeyed God.
Preserved, we know not why, by the distinguishing favor of God, it may be surmised that after their remarkable election to mercy, they became so filled with gratitude that they dedicated themselves to sacred music in order their spared lives might be consecrated to the glory of God.Charles Spurgeon, English preacher, 1834-1892
As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. Where can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, "Where is this God of yours?" My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again- my Savior and my God! Psalm 42:1-5 NLT
Scholars are unsure what is going on for this author or during this time period in the history of Israel. This could be during the time David and his household were briefly exiled while Absalom took his father’s throne. Others believe this is written later, during the time of captivity in Babylon. Whatever the story, the author is far from the temple, the house of worship. He is far from home, and subsequently, feels far away from God.
In Old Testament times, you had to be in the temple (or tabernacle prior) to get the “God experience.” The Israelites went to the temple to pray, to worship, to seek God. And this man- a son of Korah- led some form of these activities.
And now, in exile, his heart is broken. He feels lost and alone, and he thirsts for God.
When Jesus came, He changed all of this.
Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Please give me a drink." He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food. The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, "You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?" Jesus replies, "If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water." "But sire, you don't have a rope or a bucket," she said, "and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you're greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?" Jesus replied, "Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life." John 4:4-14 NLT
The metaphor of thirsting for God is so beautiful, and one we can all understand. Water is life giving and refreshing.
Certainly, this author knew he could talk to God anywhere- this is a prayer after all. But he was desperately missing the community of fellowship at the temple. He was missing the traditions, the structure, the music . . . hmmm, has anyone felt this right now during a global pandemic?
Commentators point out another difference between Book’s One and Two of the Psalter: the use of God and LORD. Yahweh or Jehovah (YHWH is the word used when LORD is all caps) is the covenant name of God for His people and was the primary name used in Book One. Book Two, as seen in this psalm, the name used is translated “God” from the Hebrew word Elohim. Elohim is the Hebrew word for God and suggests plurality, majesty, and greatness. Interestingly, Elohim is often shortened to just El.
The theme of this psalm that many can relate to is depression. In fact, one commentator titled it, “Spiritual Depression.” The author can’t eat, can’t find relief, cries constantly, thinking of happier times makes him sadder, he is far from home.
But then, he speaks to his own soul.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Psalm 42:5 ESV
The author knew the answers weren’t within his sadness or his memories or grief. The answers were in God. So, he looked up instead of within.
He didn’t say, “My soul is cast down! Oh well, that’s it. It’s over for me.” He knew the answer.
Now I am deeply discouraged, but I will remember you- even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan, from the land of Mount Mizar. I hear the tumult of the raging seas as your waves and surging tides sweep over me. But each day the LORD pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life. "O God my rock," I cry, "why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?" Their taunts break my bones. They scoff, "Where is this God of yours?" Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again- my Savior and my God! Psalm 42:6-11 NLT
The way to forget our miseries is to remember the God of our mercies.Matthew Henry, English minister, 1662-1714
The author of this psalm is far from home and far from the place his soul finds comfort, the house of worship. For whatever reason, the author has found himself in the far north mountain region of Israel, far away from Jerusalem.
My friends, when all hope is lost and great sadness threatens to suffocate one of the sons of Korah in exile, what does he do?
Yet the LORD will command his lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me- a prayer to the God of my life. Psalm 42:8 NKJV
He calls upon the LORD; the reminder of the covenant made between Jehovah with his “hesed” love and His children from the beginning.
David has shown this in his psalms as well; when evil and despair seem to threaten our very souls, we must call upon the faithfulness of God. He was faithful; He is faithful. He will always be faithful.
To be assured that our sighs and songs shall both have free access to our glorious Lord is to have reason for hope in the most deplorable condition.Charles Spurgeon, English preacher, 1834-1892
I will say to God my rock, "Why have you forgotten me?" Psalm 42:9a
Commentators point out that this is not a contradiction. Do you believe this? That only because God is our Rock, we can cry these things out to him? We can stand upon His strength and call to Him for help. The author calls out twice!
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. Psalm 42:5 KJV Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. Psalm 42:11 KJV
As the author gains in confidence, a direct result of calling upon the Lord, he seems to stand taller.
Remember: having faith doesn’t mean that we always feel faithful. Sometimes we just have to claim faith in God. During times of despair, we must stand on that mountain and call upon the hesed love of our Father; claim His faithfulness and His unfailing love.
Hesed: Hebrew. In the Old Testament the word is used to express an essential part of the character of God; unfailing love, lovingkindness, steadfast love, loyal love, mercy. The first time the word is used, God is describing Himself:
And as he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Exodus 34;6-7a
It truly is our strength. The hesed love of our Father.
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. Rescue me from my enemies, LORD, for I hide in you. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. Psalm 143:8-10
Father in heaven, as we stand on a mountain of discouragement and despair, we look toward home, toward you. You have always been and will always be faithful. You are good and we lean upon your strength, our Rock, today. Thank you for all that you do, thank you for your word and for your promises and for your love. Thank you for the daily reminder of your unfailing love. We love you. Amen.